Why you need a better (emotional) vocabulary

Recently, I went to a chiropractor here in Paris to treat the pain in my lower back. When speaking in English, I have a wide range of vocabulary to describe pain — throbbing, aching, burning, shooting, tender, sore, tingling.

In French, however, all I could say was “it hurts.” If it had been a more serious condition requiring surgery, my inability to describe more precisely what I was feeling could have been a real hindrance to getting the best treatment.

It turns out the same is true with our emotional vocabulary.

If we want to master our emotions, we have to first be able to understand them and express how we feel to others. In its research of 1M+ people, however, TalentSmart found that only 36% could accurately identify their emotions in the moment. This is problematic because unlabeled emotions often go misunderstood, which leads to drama, irrational choices and counterproductive actions.

There are six basic emotions — fear, anger, disgust, surprise, happy, sad — but they don’t begin to cover the nuance of feeling we can experience in a given situation. If the COO corrected you in front of the team, you would probably speak to her very differently if you knew you were more embarrassed than furious.

So the ability to pinpoint what we’re feeling accomplishes at least three things:

It gives us a sense of control and helps us find better solutions.


It helps us communicate better.

In my case, the subtle nuance between my “mad face” and “grumpy face” can be hard to detect. But if I say, “Don’t mind me, I’m feeling out of sorts today,” it creates a kind of emotional buffer, saves others the mental energy of wondering if they’ve done something to offend and avoids an unintentional flare-up.

It helps us feel empathy and bond with others.
My friend was having a rough day, and seemed agitated. “Sounds like you’re really getting pummeled,” I said using a word that I thought might conjure up a lighter image and take some of the edge off. “Yes!” she said. “That’s exactly how it feels,” and we shared a chuckle.

Does your vocabulary revolve around the usual suspects — mad, sad, bad, good, fine, upset, anxious, happy, stressed or tired? Pick your “favorite” and find a juicy alternative in this word wheel with almost 100 choices..

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